The Emotional Toll of Ancient History

Recently, as I was driving across town to volunteer at a homeless shelter (and running late), I realized traffic was moving even slower than usual for LA. It turns out that streets were blocked and cops out in full force because there was a protest going on outside the Turkish Consulate. I was driving right into and through the middle of it.

Around the Turkish Consulate were hundreds of Armenian protestors, demonstrating against the Ottoman Empire whom they blame for the Armenian genocide that happened between 1915-1918. Yes, you read that correctly, this is something that happened nearly a 100 years ago and was perpetrated by an entity (The Ottoman Empire) that itself no longer exists and has not existed for nearly 100 years itself. Actually, it’s more specific than that as the genocide was largely carried out by one particular political party within the Ottoman Empire called Committee of Union and Progress (CUP). The CUP themselves were disbanded in 1918 and most of its member were court martialed, imprisoned, and in some cases executed; the perpetrators of this heinous crime were long ago punished and obliterated from existence.

Yet it was clear from the signs, slogans, shouts, and contorted faces that many of the protestors were deeply anguished. Many were clearly angry, even hate-filled toward the Turks (perhaps even worse were some of the internet comments posted below the stories the next day). Of course, not a single person there was alive when the genocide happened and long ago virtually every key social and political goal of the Armenian people was achieved. These days, the Armenian people are free and independent, under the influence of no one but themselves. The country is prosperous, at peace, and working towards acceptance into the European Union. The entity that perpetrated the heinous crimes agains them has been wiped from the face of the Earth. And many of the Armenian-Americans who were taking part in the demonstration were clearly prosperous and successful themselves. One woman was driving her family up and down the street in front of the Turkish Consulate waving the Armenian flag out of the sunroof of her Rolls Royce (only in LA, huh?).

Yet the anger, emotional turmoil, and even outright hatred remains for so many.

This isn’t to excuse what the Ottomans did to the Armenians nearly 100 years ago. It was unspeakably vile. As someone who comes from a group –including my own family members — that was slaughtered in even greater numbers and more recently, I fully understand what it’s like for one’s group to be a victim of genocide.

But we can’t stay fixated on the horrors of the past. Yes, if great crimes haven’t been rectified, then we must diligently work toward that end. But in this case, not only has the worst of it long-since fixed for Armenia, the concern is what I saw on some of those signs and faces in that crowd. We need to learn forgiveness, compassion, and how to release the past. We can’t always wait for others to do it first. Someone has to be the bigger, better, braver person. That person should be you.

We do this in our personal lives as well. I know a man who felt he was deeply wronged in the 1960′s (which in itself is highly debatable as his version of events doesn’t track with other equally credible accounts). Every single time I saw this fellow, whom I’ve known since approximately 1992, he would talk about this terrible thing that was done to him in the 60′s. Sometimes I would see him as much as 20-30 straight days and lo and behold, every one of them, he would bring up how he was wronged. Imagine, carrying that around so vividly for 40-50 years. While this is a particularly extreme and obsessive example, it’s hardly unique. I’ve known many people to behave similarly.

Whether personal slights or religious/social/political, there are lots of bad things that happen to us in the world. The more we hold onto it, the more we punish ourselves. The anger and hatred I saw at the demonstration against the Turks doesn’t touch the folks locked behind the consulate gates nearly so much as it does the people on the street spewing it. And the number one person hurt that this fellow who carried a 50 year grudge was this fellow himself who undermined his life’s work in so many ways. It held him back emotionally, morally, and spiritually.

We have to learn to release both our major traumas and minor slights. I’ve probably been wronged, slandered, lied about, undermined, falsely accused, harmed, hundreds if not thousands of times in my life. I just don’t think about it and worry about it. Occasionally, if something comes up in the moment that needs to be confronted and dealt with, I do so. Then I promptly forget it and never think about it again. There may well be people out there who hate me or think I’m there enemy but I don’t hate anyone or have any enemies on my part. Sure, there’s lot of people I don’t like, don’t agree with, think are deeply confused, and some whom I think are criminals who ought to be punished, but I don’t hate them. Most importantly, I don’t let them warp my inner life.

There is no benefit, either personally or politically, in holding onto hatred, anger, or negative emotions. We often do it because we’ve developed the habit or been trained by others to think this way. These habits of mind can be changed, the downward cycle of negativity broken. What’s amazing is that it’s actually not very hard to do at all. We just have to be willing to try.